When it comes tech buzzwords, 3-D printing is nothing new.
Rapid prototyping tools -- of which 3-D printers are a subset -- make products and components from the ground up based on digital models and computer files. This so-called additive manufacturing has existed, in some form, for more than 30 years.
So, what’s driving the uptick in popularity -- and growing concerns -- around 3-D printing now?
As computing power, storage and platforms have evolved significantly in recent years, so too has the potential for 3-D printing. It’s already used in automotive, aerospace and medical industries, and portions of the government have begun to capitalize on it as well. The Defense Department, for example, is expanding its use of 3-D printing. In fact, soldiers may soon eat meals produced by 3-D printing.
A recent paper by intelligence community analysts and private sector researchers zeroes in on both the opportunities and risks of 3-D printing.
The research provides a great basis for explaining 3-D printing to laypeople, but it also corrects several misperceptions about this new-but-actually-old technology.
Here are four ways the paper busts myths associated with 3-D printing.
1. We’ll All be Able to Print Plastic Guns in Our Homes
If you’ve heard of 3-D printing lately, this fear-mongering scenario is likely the reason why.
Traditional subtractive manufacturing -- such as making a pencil from a tree or a paperclip from a block of aluminum -- works pretty well for making cheap, functional guns. Well, in fact, that's an incredibly stupid investment to use 3-D printers to make them.
That’s made clearer by the fact that it’s pretty easy to buy guns -- even illegal ones -- in the U.S., either through retailers or through the black market.
“The 3-D printing equipment needed to produce a single-shot, plastic gun costs at least several thousand dollars, with material costs starting around $100,” the report states. “The U.S. government created and tested several 3-D printed guns with different grades of plastic resin, which took a high-end 3-D printer 10 to 18 hours to print the parts. The costs and time associated with creating a 3-D printed gun alone are a prohibitive entry point to a person who wants to acquire a firearm.”
Guns created by metal are even more expensive. The research indicates that direct metal laser "sintering” equipment used to build the world’s first 3-D printed metal handguns begins at $500,000 and requires significant support and training.
This is not something Jimbob and his gun-loving buddies down the street are going to undertake between cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. For would-be terrorists, it doesn’t seem a likely avenue either, and the report makes that clear.
“Guns are part of the story; they’re a sexy topic that the media likes to focus on, but the world is awash in industrial-quality-made guns,” Sean Costigan, a security consultant and one of the report’s authors, told Nextgov. “You don’t need 3-D printers to make them.”
2. 3-D Printers Will Destroy the World Economy
This is not happening -- at least not in our lifetime.
The paper says “additive manufacturing will fall somewhere between the extremes of creating and destroying jobs.” Yes, that’s admittedly vague -- the Chicago Cubs will fall somewhere between winning and losing the World Series, right?
But all signs point to 3-D printing replacing unskilled human labor positions prevalent in subtractive manufacturing with more skilled jobs in computer-aided design, math, materials engineering and automation oversight.
3. We Can Make Anything with 3-D Printers
Objects today exceeding 12 square inches “are difficult to make on most 3-D printers, as larger printed parts can warp during manufacture and be affected by gravity,” the report states.
To meet legal quality control standards, 3-D printed items will have to go through extensive testing too, which means they’ll be bound by the same rules as other manufactured items.
“Today’s 3-D printing technology cannot effectively print everything, as limitations in the ability to print multiple materials within the same 3-D printer poses engineering challenges in many cases,” the report states. “Users of 3-D printers have a wide range of printer options available but in all cases these printers still have limitations.”
4. 3-D printing Will Increase Competition
The idea is that 3-D printing will open manufacturing to a host of smaller players, much like cloud computing allows tech startups to compete with the big boys right out of the box. However, the paper highlights major cybersecurity and counterfeiting threats faced by the 3-D printing industry that could clamp down competition.
The theft of a single stereo lithography or computer-aided design file could represent the theft of an entire R&D product line. What’s worse: Those file types, as the paper points out, “do not share the same protection,” including encryption, as other digital files.
That means if hackers breaks in and steals those files, they are potentially taking a huge amount of investment.
In addition, particularly malicious cyberattacks could change a few lines of code in those files, making them unusable or corrupt. The paper points to a 2013 incident in which security researchers were able to prove that AutoCAD malware existed that directed infected machines to send CAD files to specific outside email addresses. That’s scary.
3-D printing is also a godsend to counterfeiters, according to the research. As the technology advances, expect 3-D printing to continue contributing to global counterfeiting worldwide, especially for high-dollar items like handbags, shoes, phones, clothing and some toys. Those objects are easily scanned, and once a printable file is created, it can be produced repeatedly at only the cost of input materials.
It’s also interesting to note that 3-D printers can introduce “hidden voids” into objects that otherwise appear solid, the report states.
Examples include souvenirs that contain illicit materials, such as drugs or explosives, or objects that contain radio-frequency identification chips.
“Bad actors could use such techniques to embed chips or micro cameras for espionage,” the report states. “Current methods of detection, such as X-ray machines, will continue to reveal the contents of objects. However, the likely proliferation of 3-D printed objects will make it more difficult for those responsible to protect national security, as relying on visual inspection for detection will no longer be as possible.”
Report: 3-D Printing ‘Genie’ Can’t be Put Back in Bottle
The report concludes that the “time is now” to think about safeguards and requirements to detect such embedded devices. It also highlights how 3-D printing blurs the lines in liability and litigation, what categorizes intellectual property (if my digital file is stolen, can I prove I am the owner?), quality control and the accessibility of 3-D printers.
Such additive manufacturing devices today are not export controlled, but they could be in the future. That might be one way to curb the proliferation of the machines. However, the report argues that similar controls on software and design code are much more challenging, if not impossible.
“There’s almost nothing we can do about that,” said Costigan, the report co-author. “Any small group of talented engineers could set off in the direction of making a 3-D printer, and that in itself reinforces the value of the technology and the possibilities within. There is no way to put the genie back in the bottle.”
Before that genie gets unwieldy, Costigan said governments need to devise a “control regime for the sorts of things we don’t want made,” but noted the difficult political challenges toward doing so.
“This thing exists, it’s here and we need to accept that and then get on to the next stage which is, ‘What do we do about it?’’’ Costigan said. “It’s a great technology, it’s liberating for small groups of people and it has great opportunities. On the other side of it, it’s known that we have worries and concerns and we have to start treating them.”